Sound of silence: Some family secrets are best left hidden.
This week, I committed myself to watching “The Art Dealer” directed by François Margolin, with a script by Margolin and Jean-Claude Grumberg.
It’s based on a true story of a post war French family eating itself alive from the inside. I’m not thrilled with every second of it, but it’s worth watching. It is worth it not for the actor at the center, but for the deep professional work of the aging French stars and character actors, who work with such fine Gallic subtlety, that adds the requisite touches.
For decades since the end of World War II, it seems that everyone who remembers anything about the fate of plundered French Art has either died or fallen silent. Here, in Margolin’s film, we learn about one such family, fictitious, but based on a real family.
In cocktail parties, dinner parties and street corner conversations we meet Raoul (the wonderful Michel Bouquet, who brilliantly played the artist Renoir in Gilles Bourdos’ 2012 “Renoir”) and Claude Weinstein (Robert Hirsh), 90-year-old survivors, dealers in art.
They sit silently, like shadowy ghosts at weddings and anniversaries, refusing to talk about or even think about what happened to the great art collections that were stolen by the Nazis, not just those looted from Paris museums, but from wealthy Jewish families. What’s amazing is that no one any longer even asks questions.
At the center of this mystery is young Esther (Anna Sigalevitch).
We learn that Esther, who is married with a son, and a mid-level journalist at a French paper, is the granddaughter in a famous family of art dealers.
At the start, Esther, a serious-minded, intense, young woman gets nosy.
One day, Esther happens to see the painting of two leopards, sitting quietly by one another in golden light. It’s a painting her husband Melchoir (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who is a Parisian art auctioneer, has brought home so he can appraise it. He casually tells her that he told the owner that it might be worth a few hundred thousand euros.
When Esther’s father Simon (François Berléand) visits the house for dinner, he recognizes the painting, his mind travels to the past and family gatherings, and pieces begin to fall into place.
Conversations, handsome young people now aged, mostly dead, discuss and argue about art.
These passages are too long. Eager to find out why Margolin’s film is booked as a WWII mystery-thriller out of the past, we soon grow bored with chit chat.
Simon, too, is one of the silent ones, who sit at family gatherings, nodding and smiling, but dodging Esther’s questions about what really happened to the grandfather’s huge collection of great art during the war.
Esther, who loves to drift away from parties and snoop around the family homes, comes upon some Super 8 film clips of long ago lawn parties and weddings.
When the strange silence of the old ones deepens, especially in their refusal to discuss their relationships with their war years’ German occupiers, Esther grows more intrigued.
When she is denied access to her grandfather’s papers that are kept in a state file, Esther, like a French Philip Marlowe, goes door to door, cigarette in hand, and sporting a slightly comic film noir trench coat and slouch hat, to speak with elderly relatives who survived Paris in the war.
They shut her out, and get snappy and irritated at her persistence. She even suspects she is being followed.
It’s when she taps into the memory of an old friend, Claude Weinstein, a surviving and sympathetic friend of her grandfather’s years, that the pace of the film quickens, but not by much.
We soon learn that her grandfather was taken and shot by the Germans, and that no one wants to talk about it. The whispers of the family’s collusion with the Nazis grow stronger, and the shadows around Esther grow darker.
The conclusion, unsatisfying to this reviewer, confirms its premise, that some family secrets ARE best left hidden.
There is one revealing scene at a burial event when one of the secret keepers is laid to rest. The look of relief on the faces of the survivors is priceless. That says it all.
A better approach to this genre can be found in 1964’s “The Train,” and of course, 2015’s “Woman in Gold,” which was the best.
“THE ART DEALER”
Drama, history, thriller
A young woman is searching, today, in Paris, for the collection of paintings stolen from her Jewish family during World War II.
LENGTH: 93 minutes
RATING: Not rated
DIRECTOR: François Margolin
WRITERS: Jean-Claude Grumberg (screenplay), François Margolin (screenplay)
STARS: Anna Sigalevitch, Michel Bouquet, Robert Hirsch
NETWORK: Prime Video
J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.